Henry Grimes & Oluyemi Thomas in Pittsburgh
Located in the periphery of several urban neighborhoods that straddle boarded-up storefronts and artistic revitalization, ModernFormations Gallery normally plays host to local and touring indie rock and experimental bands, along with the young visual artists its name implies. On this particular evening, however, the scattered couches and stray chairs normally found in the back room performance space were set up in a more formal theater-style arrangement. The evening began with sets by local improvisers including the versatile saxophonist/composer Ben Opie. Conversation in the gallery area up front was kept to a whisper during the opening acts—an almost unheard-of courtesy at shows such as this.
It's widely known that Henry Grimes (pictured) stopped playing music in 1968 and didn't touch the bass for nearly 35 years. Since picking up the instrument again four years ago, he has regained the strength and authority that earned him a strong reputation in the first place. His approach and tone put him in league with highly skilled players associated with the instrument. He moved gracefully around the neck, plucking rapidly and producing sounds with a deeply penetrating tone and authority. Half the time, his pizzicato lines came while holding the bow in his hand, ready to launch into some deep blue arco lines at a moment’s notice.
The performance marked the first collaboration of Grimes and multi-reedist Oluyemi Thomas, the latter a resident of Oakland, Calif. and a member of the music and poetry unit Positive Knowledge. Mutual artistic respect brought the duo together and the rapport continued throughout their musical exchanges. Thomas switched between bass clarinet, musette, soprano sax and wooden flute. Along the way, he added gongs and shakers, as well as the occasional dance move to drive home a theatrical quality and the enthusiasm of the evening. His soprano playing offered an especially compelling section of the hour-long performance, pitting a sharp-tongued sound against Grimes’ fast bowing. For an encore, his bass clarinet blended with his partner for moments that evoked a dialogue between Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. Instead of turbulence, however, these two seemed to be moving in a more positive direction.